JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers will search recent releases to discover the best kids' fiction out there. Given that the line between what makes a novel perfect for a teenager and just as compelling for an adult is anyone’s guess, Celia will sometimes review an “adult” novel that crosses that divide, as well as books for everyone from pre-schoolers to high-schoolers. We hope Celia's terrific choices help get kids reading, and help create the next generation of readers and writers!
Dinner with the Highbrows
By Kimberley Willis Holt; illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker
Published by Henry Holt and Company/Christy Ottaviano Books
Teaching young children good manners is one of the greatest trials that comes with parenthood. Unless you’re Emily Post or a prison warden, why not make this as much fun as Kimberly Willis Holt and Kyrsten Brooker’s Dinner With the Highbrows — it’s a sure-fire means of inducing giggles, and illustrating why polite conduct may not always be enjoyable but has its own winning ways.
Young Bernard Worrywort is sent off to his first dinner away from home alone with strict instructions from his mother. The invitation comes, after all, from the rich and fancy family of Bernard’s friend Gilbert Highbrow. In this status-enhancing setting Bernard must pay particular attention to “tell Mrs.Highbrow how lovely the table is set… Place the napkin in your lap… And bow you head when they say the blessing… Don’t talk with food in your mouth. And for goodness sake don’t sing.”
Kyrsten Brooker’s high-jinx illustrations underscore how justified Bernard’s mother was to worry. But not about Bernard. The Highbrows are a rambunctious lot, and dinner is at their favorite haunt, Antonio’s Italian Restaurant. With more than the ordinary number of opportunities for wild and crazy behavior, it assuredly starts with the blessing, namely “Good grub. Good meat. Good gosh, let’s eat.” True to his word, though, Bernard is able to show the Highbrows something about helping and kindness. Don’t expect a neat ending, though. The messiest, most sugar-heightened shenanigans are yet to come.
The Carver Chronicles: Dog Days
By Karen English; illustrated by Laura Freeman
Published by Clarion Books
Somewhere George Washington Carver is smiling.
The prolific American scientist, botanist, educator, inventor and African-American icon has had lots of schools named after him. But that still doesn’t put Gavin any more at ease. He’s the new kid in the fourth grade at Carver Elementary, not just a place but also a collection of energy-to-burn youngsters that Karen English and illustrator Laura Freeman evoke with pencil-sharp understanding and humor. Gavin is tight with his mom and dad, which is well known to help calm first-day jitters. He’s secure in his skills at skateboarding, soccer and video-games.
New schools also hold out the promise of new friendships, and Gavin jumps at the chance of buddy bonding with Richard, an adventuresome classmate. The problem is, Richard has an older brother as well, who hangs around with a posse of boys who not only have Gavin beat age-wise but include the school bully. Who is really weak, and who truly strong? Those are the kind of questions that can’t find answers until a particular setback has been overcome. For Gavin, the setback is Getting In Trouble.
English neatly crayons in the thin line between good and bad, funny and mean, just and unjust. Through no fault of his own—okay, maybe a little—Gavin must suffer his parents’ disappointment and their choice of punishment. As is true generally in life, embarrassment can dole out just the right amount of penance, and Gavin’s arrives in the shape of an ankle-biter-high yapper with “grotesque orange fur that looks prickly enough to hurt someone:” his Great-aunt Myrtle’s Pomeranian, Carlotta. How nice—and cruel—would it be for Gavin to be Carlotta’s walker for a week? Especially since, when out for her constitutionals, she’s in full regalia of big pink head bow and matching collar. These do not prevent her from attacking a wig store, and much larger dogs.
Gavin’s only relief is writing in his journal. But he can also take a certain measure of pride in surviving his ordeal thanks to his newfound acquaintanceship with dog psychology and some impressive smarts. English has a gentle but effective take on how doggedness has its rewards, and breeds understanding. Outcomes like that are worth a hundred Pomeranians.2 .
Mouseheart, Vol. 1
By Lisa Fiedler; illustrated by Vivienne To
Published by Simon&Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry Books
Before leaping screeching onto the nearest chair, or hunting for your family’s biggest broom, consider this: the mice of Lisa Fiedler’sMouseheart can be as lovable, brave, and good-hearted as any humans you could hope to meet. So can rats—except a bunch of truly despicable ones. Why, Hopper, the diminutive hero of this thrilling, captivating, knights-of-the-round-cheese-style tale exhibits a trait common among many young males of our species—he can’t stand his feisty, pugnacious sister, Pinkie. The feeling is mutual, and also makes Hopper feel secretly inferior. He’d rather play gently with their little brother, Pup, than go near anything like a fight or an adventure.
As denizens of a Brooklyn pet shop, caged but fed well and cleanly housed, not much has darkened their short lives, though Hopper has seemed to hover on the PTSD end of the emotional scale since witnessing their mother roughly removed from the cage one day hanging by her tail, leaving as her last, enigmatic words what sounds like “Find the Mews, Hopper. You must…below.” Was she sold to the same shifty customer who enters the shop one day to buy furry edibles for his boa constrictor? The siblings don’t stick around long enough to find out, but their escape thrusts them from the “upland” world into an underground universe of subways, secret passageways, an assortment of creatures good and bad, and a turreted imperial rat palace. The politics are complicated. Working with these fanciful creations, Lisa Fiedler deservedly joins the company of fine fairy-tale weavers, quest narrative chroniclers, specialists in detective stories, and writers deft enough to draw chilling parallels between the behavior of their characters and some of the worst crimes of history.
Without letting the cat out of the bag, Volume 2 awaits.
The Year She Left Us
By Kathryn Ma
Published by Harper
Age 14 and up, and adults
Moses was found in a basket. Oliver Twist in the workhouse. Little Orphan Annie in a classically depressing New York orphanage. Frances McDormand was raised in foster care, and Steve Jobs became the richest orphan of them all. A child’s relinquishment has furnished story upon story about growing up on the way to growing whole in the literature of many lands. Yet for many, a particular void and the perpetual desperation to fill it changes the narrative.
In Kathryn Ma’s luminous yet raw The Year She Left Us, Ari—short for her Ariadne—was left as a newborn in a box on the steps of a provincial Chinese department store. Like thousands who fell on the wrong side of the country’s one-family-one-child policy, she was shipped to an orphanage where her fate—especially as a girl, undesirable in her culture—came to lie with another demographic, childless Americans on a quest to select and nurture such left-behinds into a very different future. Ma slowly, inexorably lets us in on why Ari refuses, or cannot, feel herself one of the “Lucky Ones.”
Brought home to San Francisco by her adoptive mother, Charlotte—or Charlie—an independent single woman and public defender from a well-off upper-class family, there is a feeling that Ari should count herself multiply blessed: her extended adoptive family, the Kongs, is Chinese-American. Yet Ari has somehow turned out differently from her closest friends “salvaged” from the orphanage—she’s the angry, unfulfilled side of adoption.
As Ari enters her later, angry teens, Goth in clothing and disaffected attitude, she discovers that “It felt good, behaving badly,” for some reason. That reason is what Ma painstakingly, in language as fine as it is cutting—and from one continent and city to another—explores.
“Stop looking for once for a better family,” Charlie angrily implores her daughter, as Ari wreaks havoc on relationships among the Kongs—at the top of the list, Gran, the Kong matriarch, who cares only that Ari attend her alma mater, Bryn Mawr, until the girl’s agony makes mincemeat of her emotional lockdown, too. Ari is looking for the biological parents that exist primarily in her imagination, especially her father—a longing also connected to the lost lover Charlie once thought would join them as her husband. Abandonment takes many forms.
Not for an instant does Ma abandon the truth, sorrows and joys of this story.4 .